During Bob Gill’s time in London in the 1960s, the BBC invited him on to a children’s TV show where he was to draw along live as an actor read the nursery rhyme Rub-a-dub-dub. The producer said Bob could make some faint outline sketches before filming began but he refused to even read a proffered copy of the story, committed as he was to doing it in real time. As the cameras rolled though, he soon found himself hopelessly behind and by the end the paper was covered in a series of meaningless marks. “They were so angry,” he laughs. “I thought they were going to kill me!” True to form he’s turned this into a great anecdote which he tells with relish, but it says something important about his creative integrity too.
Visitors to Bob’s website are greeted with an introductory paragraph of text that lists some of his achievements, interspersed with the words “blah blah blah,” some of which flash distractingly while you’re trying to read. It’s quite a CV – the designer, illustrator, writer, filmmaker and teacher was a founding partner of Pentagram, has the highest accolades from several Art Directors Clubs, created the Broadway phenomenon Beatlemania and has produced more than 20 books.
“As a designer and a teacher I am a proselytiser. I am always interested in spreading the word because from my point of view the state of the art is so terrible"
And yet both on his homepage and sitting with him in his Manhattan apartment there is a curious tension between his career and people’s interest in it, and what he really wants to talk about.
“As a designer and a teacher I am a proselytiser. I am always interested in spreading the word because from my point of view the state of the art is so terrible,” he explains. “It would be fun to try to lift it up a little bit. Nobody wants to be cruel. On the other hand I have been talking about it for a long time and it just doesn’t seem to get any better.”
The 84-year-old has been an outspoken critic of visual communication for six decades, in his books, in interviews and in the lectures he still gives around the world. He’s not nostalgic for some heyday of design; in fact he rejects the very idea of one. “I don’t know what people talk about when they talk about a golden age because of a million designers in 1950 or 1960 or 1970, 13 did anything that was worth ten cents. They can call that a golden age but the gold has been tarnished I think.”
What has changed of course is technology and the way it’s altered the design process, but Bob is keen to point out he’s no Luddite, gesturing at the huge Mac that sits on one of his two desks. In fact now that the craft side of design has become demystified and democratised, he thinks designers should be able to come into their own.
“Now for a designer to make a living, they have to do more than just know how to set some type because the client can do that. So what’s left? Well the most wonderful part is left, which is to discover how you say new things. I often talk about design as idea; I am not interested in design as layout – obviously I have to lay things out in order for them to be read – but it’s very low down on my priorities. I spend the majority of my time having an opinion and trying to invent an image that says that opinion like nobody’s ever said it before. That’s the fun of it.”
You can see how this shapes Bob’s work across his projects but one of the best examples was his logo for the tourist guide company Rent a New Yorker. He wanted to convey the idea that their guides were proper locals and realised that it’s the accents that really identify bona fide New Yorkers. So he created a phonetic logo that ran the four words into a modified whole – RentaNooYawka.
“I spend the majority of my time having an opinion and trying to invent an image that says that opinion like nobody’s ever said it before. That’s the fun of it.”
The problem now, he believes, is that designers are not willing or able to have opinions. “It’s not in their culture. They’re interested in doing a design, that has a nice typeface and a nice photograph. That’s their standard. They’re very happy and the clients don’t question it so life goes on.”
He uses a fictional example to further make his point, tailoring it to me as an Englishman in New York in terms of a brief for a book called Birds of Southampton.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” he says, settling into his chair and into his stride. “Someone gets a job and they sit at their computer waiting for lightning to strike. The problem is that every image in their head, every idea in their head, every trick in their head has been put there by The Culture. There’s nothing original.”
“The Culture” is the great mass of images and ideas which bombard us every day, and therefore shape the way we think visually. Only by recognising The Culture’s presence and its power, can designers move away from the clichés it promotes. The answer is to really interrogate the brief, to find something interesting to say about the subject. He’s evangelical about proper first-hand research (“Go to Southampton and talk to enthusiasts there!”) and its ability to help a designer form an original opinion – to genuinely have something to say.
He continues: “If you honestly think your statement is interesting then an absolute miracle happens, you listen to the statement and it designs itself. It will tell you what colour the book jacket should be, what the layout should look like, whether it’s crowded or empty, it will tell you the typeface, it’ll tell you everything.” Not only that, but design work rooted in this kind of rigorous process is much harder to turn down.“It’s very hard for the client to say, ‘I don’t like blue,’ because blue seems inevitable,” he adds.
The best image-makers channel this kind of thinking, Bob says, listing Alan Fletcher, Robert Brownjohn and the illustrator Barry Blitt – “who’s not capable of doing something that’s not original or amazing and it all comes from the same process – what does he have to say before he even thinks about an image?”
“If you honestly think your statement is interesting then an absolute miracle happens, you listen to the statement and it designs itself."
These geniuses are the exceptions rather than the rule, and there are “ten million who have never had idea in their lives.” Written down this all sounds quite harsh, but Bob’s criticisms come from his obvious passion for what design and being a designer can be, and few appreciate this better than him. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, he studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before returning to New York’s City College. On graduating he went to work as a freelance designer, encouraged by Paul Rand (among others) who told him “Never leave this business,” after reviewing his portfolio. Bob worked for the likes of Pirelli, Apple Corps Records and the United Nations, sold illustrations to Esquire, Fortune and The Nation, and created magazine covers and title sequences for films. In the 50s and 60s, being a graphic designer was “the hot, sexy profession,” as Bob once told Eye magazine.
In 1960 he moved to London, where, as the story goes, he’d been given one name to look up when he arrived – Alan Fletcher. The Brit was heading off on holiday when he called but said he’d leave a key under the mat, and from this odd start blossomed one of the 20th Century’s defining creative relationships. Fletcher was working with Colin Forbes at the time but in 1962 the three joined forces as Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, an organisation that would later become Pentagram.
Bob speaks about his time in the UK with relish – both personally and professionally it was an exciting time for him. “It was Swinging London. I was unmarried. When I got there I instantly thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there.”
The trio set up their first office in a two storey Victorian mews house near Baker Street and Bob often quotes Alan Fletcher’s comment that picking up work was “like shooting fish in a barrel” and the trio’s book, Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons, sold more than 100,000 copies. Bob puts their success down to the ability to be honest with each other.
“Say Fletcher and I are walking through the office and we happen to look into Forbes’ box and we look at each other and we’re both appalled, it looks terrible. We go in and say, ‘Colin this sucks, you can’t pursue this.’ Forbes knows immediately that Fletcher and I are smarter and more talented than he is because it’s two of us. So he doesn’t even try to defend it, he throws it out and starts again.
“The next day Fletcher and Forbes are walking in the studio and having a chat and they see me working on something and they walk in shaking their heads and say, ‘Jesus how could you do such piece of crap like that?’ Again I know they are smarter than I and more talented than I, so I have no problem tearing it up.”
Bob thinks that any designers who work together need to have this kind of rapport. “I only wish that if designers get together in partnership they are in that kind of relationship.” Does that come from trust? “Of course. It would be soul destroying if the same two partners every day looked at the third partner’s work and say ‘this is terrible’. Why would you wanna work with two people who hate your work? But if it’s as I described it’s a miracle.”
“I am much less fashionable now, I am not fighting people off with a stick any more but that’s fair enough."
During his time here Bob was invited to give talks at art schools the length and breadth of the country. It was a fun way to see the UK but occasionally it also made him nervous about how the next generations of designers were being prepared. He recalls one visit to the West Country where he was met off the train “by a very earnest design teacher” who told him on the drive to the campus that he used to work in a London ad agency that he’d found creatively stifling, with hack briefs from conservative clients.
When they arrived at the art school, Bob was shown some of the students’ work. “I could not believe my eyes. Because of his sincerity in trying to train these kids in the West Country, he created an advertising agency. What he did without realising was reproduce this same awful conditions that drove him out of London. It was sad. Very sad. I don’t remember what I said, but I tried to be as diplomatic as possible.”
Maybe as he’s got older this need to be diplomatic has lessened – now he’s more than happy to call things as he sees them. But he’s no armchair commentator – Bob still works regularly.
“I am much less fashionable now, I am not fighting people off with a stick any more but that’s fair enough. There are many precedents: Picasso who was the greatest artist of the 20th Century at the end of his life in the 50s was considered irrelevant. The Pop Artists weren’t interested. That doesn’t make him less terrific but things change. It would be terrible if things didn’t change. But my process has not changed. I am just working away.”